In Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, his impassioned, scholarly but somewhat schizophrenic dissection of Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin, Martin Amis contemplates the fact that jokes about the Soviet Union have always been perfectly acceptable, despite its legacy of slaughter, famine, torture, rape and genocide.
“We will all go on joking about it because there’s something in Bolshevism that is painfully, unshirkably comic,” he writes. “It seems that the Twenty Million will never command the sepulchral decorum of the Holocaust.”
Amis wrote the peripatetic Koba—part history, part personal reflection, part unabashed slap-down—to address what he felt was the wrong-headed, naive admiration of Stalin by the same British intellectuals who decried Hitler, even though these include his father Kingsley and his friend and New Statesman colleague Christopher Hitchens. But because Amis the Younger is a fearless comic novelist whose career has mined the unholy symbiosis of humor and horror, it’s inevitable that in his new novel he turns a trenchant gaze to the failed Soviet experiment and how the stench of the tragic past still defines the present.
Amis has written divinely black novels before—the apocalyptic London Fields, about the death of love, or the relentlessly grim Time’s Arrow, in which a Nazi doctor time travels backward to his mother’s womb—but House of Meetings may be his bleakest book to date.
Yet note the wry tone of his narrator, an elderly, decorated Russian army veteran with an appetite for rape and “the wet stuff” (bloody murder) sent by his government after World War II to a gulag above the Arctic Circle. “This is a love story. All right, Russian love. But still love.”
The unnamed narrator opens this unsettling novel with a letter to his American stepdaughter Venus. “If what they say is true, and my country is dying, then I think I may be able to tell them why.” He is returning to the 69th parallel as a tourist: “I have a four-berth cabin all to myself. The Gulag Tour, so the purser tells me, never quite caught on.”
He is sending Venus the story of the loves of his life—his younger brother Lev, a poet and pacifist sent to the same work camp, and Lev’s wife, the alluring Zoya—and how their visit to the House of Meetings, where starving prisoners enjoy rare conjugal visits though they dream of food, not sex, marked a dramatic change in Russia’s destiny.
House of Meetings’ sleek but forceful style is light-years from the broadly howling chaos of Amis’ last novel, the unfairly maligned but waaaaay over-the-top Yellow Dog. Meetings is too spare to be a true Russian novel. But though pared to the bone in terms of Amis’ usual explosive literary flourishes, it is a consistently gripping, concise epic of human atrocity. Amis is nothing if not precise in hammering home his universal themes of filial love, jealousy and sacrifice; the physical and mental burden of survival, and the juxtaposition of Eastern resignation to suffering vs. the pampered Westerner’s tendency to invent pain.
He needs look no farther than Venus’ grotesquely pierced friends or her terrifying anorexia for proof of the latter affliction: “Looking at those boys, with their sheared heads, their notched noses and scarified ears, I felt myself back in Norlag. Is this the invention of pain? Or a little reenactment of the pains of the past?”
Even middle-age Westerners indulge in self-created breakdowns. “What history might have done to you, you bring about on purpose: separation from woman and child,” he shrewdly observes. “Don’t tell me that such men aren’t tasting the ancient flavors of death and defeat. ... Over here, now, there’s no angling around for your male midlife crises. It is brought to you and it is always the same thing. It is death.”
Amis’ harrowing vision of a nation cannibalizing its people is grim in the extreme, more so when he links gulag life—backbreaking work, unimaginable cold, murder and the gruesomely amusing jostling for power—to such modern horrors as the siege in a Moscow theater in which police gassed civilians to bring the standoff to an end or the more recent school-hostage crisis in North Ossetia, where government mistakes set off an inferno that killed 330, more than half of the victims children.
“On a larger scale character means nothing,” our narrator tells Venus. “On the larger scale, destiny is demographics; and demographics is a monster.” Amis has made it his business to shock that monster of history into life. Russia may be dying, as our narrator believes. Under Amis’ watch, its death throes do not go unnoticed.